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The Lost Forty: time seems to slow and thicken amid these ancient pines, saved by a surveyor's error a century ago.

North to Blackduck, east to Alvwood, north to County 29, east to County 25, north to Forest Road 2240, west for one mile. Sometimes, when I'm driving there, I understand how the Lost Forty came to be lost. Even with today's roads and maps, it seems to resist discovery. It does not surprise me that in 1882, government surveyors missed the mark on this tract of northern Minnesota forest and designated 433 acres of virgin timber as part of nearby Coddington Lake.

The surveying error saved the already massive red and white pines from the lumber frenzy of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Because the land was officially designated as public water, it could not be sold or logged. Later about two-thirds of the original acreage was in fact harvested, but 144 acres found its way into the National Forest System. It was affectionately dubbed The Lost Forty, a reference to the most common land division in Minnesota logging vernacular.

When the trees of the Lost Forty were spared the woodsmen's ax, they were only 200 to 300 years old, about middle age. Today, at 300 to 400 years, they are the elders of the north woods. They are not alone, of course. There are other parks and places where visitors can touch and admire the long trunks and shimmering canopies of the reds and whites. But the Lost Forty has a special magic.

Much of that magic comes from the passage we must make to get there. Starting in Bemidji, we drive first on a four-lane divided highway. The woods there are held back; the natural marsh lands are reduced to ditch water. But a few miles out of town, the highway narrows to two lanes. Long tracts of youthful woods are interrupted only occasionally by driveways. Swamps begin to stretch out and harbor ponds with paddling ducks.

Beyond Blackduck, 20 miles north of Bemidji, the woods step right up to the ditch. Houses bury themselves in the trees. We drive slower, partly because of the road's condition but mostly because time is beginning to take on a different quality. It is hard to hurry here.

We get to Alvwood and turn north, then east again. A tamarack bog opens its wide arms. A creek meanders so carelessly that we cross it twice. Going slower yet, we turn onto a gravel county road and then onto the forest road. Ahead a tunnel forms. The sun loses its power. We know we are getting closer. Here and there the ample trunk of a mature red and white pine elbows its way out of the underbrush and younger trees. Then, almost suddenly, we are there. A thick red pine leans at a 45 degree angle over a two-car parking lot. A few feet farther down the road, a trail winds into the trees.

The path into the Lost Forty is common enough. A little gravel has been added in some places, but tree roots still remind us to pay attention. Here it is wide enough for walking side by side; there it forces us to make our way alone. Always the pine trees impinge: cones crunch underfoot, and slick mats of needles play the forest's version of the banana-peel trick. Plastic soles are not recommended. We are torn between looking up, down, or straight ahead. Each level has its own intricacies.

We come to a stand of towering reds. Because their crowns take all the light, little grows at their feet. We leave the path and wander among them.

Back at a fork in the path, we gather our picnic things and spread our blanket next to the "Tree We Loved to Death." In order to "hug" this tree, visitors bruised its roots and packed the ground around it. A short while ago, it was fenced off, but even this could not save it from its own age; the top two-thirds recently blew off. Lying on the ground, the fallen behemoth makes its own road off into the woods.

The fate of the Tree We Loved to Death is the fate of all the mighty pines in the Lost Forty. Their progress is guarded by District Ranger Robert Paddock of the Blackduck Ranger District, Chippewa National Forest, who named the fence-protected tree. "The biggest culprit is Fomes pini, red rot fungus," he tells us. "It is a characteristic heart rot." Affected trees topple easily in the wind, Paddock adds.

Paddock estimates that there are about 500 big pines left in the Lost Forty, about 150 to 200 of those along the groomed path. As with the rest of the forest's fauna, their natural cycle will not be interrupted. Unless they block the main path, fallen trees will not be removed and planting will not be done.

"The Lost Forty," says Paddock, "is designated as a unique biotic area. The only development will be to protect and interpret. "

But more than that is being done to ensure that we do not have to trust to a surveyor's error to enjoy and treasure such tracts as the Lost Forty in the future. In the Chippewa, says Paddock, more than 7,000 of its 660,000 acres (spread over 1.6 million acres of northern Minnesota) have been set aside as old-growth acreage. This means that the forest will be left to care for itself.

The red and white pines will continue to tumble and become part of the forest floor. Someday fire will cleanse the woods of underbrush and the shade of deciduous trees, creating a seedbed friendly to the tiny pine seeds. From the dark, moist womb of the earth they will burst into light and life. And gradually they will again take hold of the sky, keeping sun and wind at bay and commanding a place of majestic silence.
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Author:Hauser, Susan
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1989
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